Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 4: The Second Chapter Continues – How to Live in the World

Sankhya also implies the knowledge of the immortality of the soul. At the very beginning of Sri Krishna’s instructions in the Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, emphasis is laid on the eternity of the soul. Deathless, immutable is the Atman: avināśi tu tad viddhi yena sarvam idaṁ tatam (2.17). The word ‘avināśi’ means it is indestructible. Not only that, it is all pervading: yena sarvam idaṁ tatam. The Atman is involved in all things, warp and woof. The deathlessness or the indestructibility of the soul implies the timelessness of the soul because that which is involved in time cannot be deathless, as time is the factor that kills everything. The process of time is the process of decay, transformation and final extinction.

Therefore, anything that is involved in the process of time cannot be immortal. Hence, the immortality of the soul also suggests the timelessness of the soul. And the timelessness of the soul implies the spacelessness of the soul because when time goes, space also goes. As space and time are two facets of empirical involvement, when one goes, the other also goes. We cannot think of time without space, as we always consider time as a kind of movement or succession in space; and, we cannot think of space without the process of time involved in it. Thus, the whole world is subject to mutation, transition, and the conditions involved in the very existence of space and time.

The Atman, or the soul of man, is not in space and time. The soul is not in space and time because it can know that there is space and time. The knower of an object is itself not the object. The consciousness in us, which is the Atman basically, is aware of the existence of such a thing as space and time; therefore, the knower, which is consciousness, cannot itself be involved in space and time. The knower of space is not in space. The knower of time is not in time. Hence, basically, essentially, the soul within is spaceless and timeless—avināśi and tatam—spread out everywhere, wider than space and more durable than time. This soul, which is deathless, is encased, as it were, in a perishable body. The human being is partly in the world of death and partly in the world of the immortals. We are involved physically, and to some extent psychologically, in space and time. We know very well that we have a location in space; we cannot be spread out everywhere. Also, there is a movement of our life in the process of time. We are born, we grow, we decay, and one day we perish. Therefore, this psychophysical organism, which is the human individual, is itself subject to destruction, notwithstanding the fact that it is a tabernacle of this deathless soul.

We think in two ways. We think in terms of space, time and objects, and we also think in terms of an aspiration for eternal existence. We know very well that we cannot live long in this world. Everybody has to pass away. Nobody can deny the fact that one day everybody has to go. In spite of this knowledge of the surety of the death of this body—the negation of this psychophysical individuality—we fear death. We do not want to die.

Who is it, actually, who does not want to die? The body cannot aspire for deathlessness because it is involved in the very process of dying, which is time. And the mind, which is psychophysical, is also perishable on account of its transitory nature. So why do we fear death? Who fears death? Is it the body that fears death? The body is not even conscious; it is a physical substance. There is something in us which does not want to die. The desire not to die cannot arise in something which is subject to death in any way whatsoever. The desire not to die implies the possibility of not dying—hence, our aspiration for deathlessness. The fear of death implies the existence of such a thing as immortality. We cannot fear death unless we do not want to die, and the desire to not die cannot arise in the physical body or in anything in this world; it has to arise from something which is superior to all physical matter. That is to say, we have a root in eternity, which is the cause of our aspiration that takes us beyond all extension in space and duration in time. We would like to possess the whole world. We would like to become masters of the entire space, and we would like to live as long as time itself. This desire cannot arise in time. It cannot arise in space. It arises in something which is not in space, not in time, and which is not an object.

Thus, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna, “Don’t be a coward, saying that one day you will die and afterwards everything will be annihilated, saying that you don’t know what will happen afterwards.” The fear of death implies the futurity of the soul. We say that we must do good actions, we must be righteous, we must live moral and ethical lives. These injunctions cannot have any meaning unless the soul is deathless, because at any moment one can pass away. If tomorrow is the end of this individuality, all good actions also go with it. Therefore, all the injunctions for being righteous and good and humane become futile but for the fact that there is a possibility of the continuity of life after the perishing of this body. That is, rebirth of the soul is implied in the very injunctions to be good in this world, to do some service, and to have a worthwhile existence in this world.

The rebirth of the soul is also very interesting. The soul perpetually takes these successive forms in the period of time on account of it being necessary, in the process of evolution, to advance further and further in the experience of life. It is necessary for us to die in order that we may learn better lessons in a newer form of existence. Death is not the extinction of individuality. Death is only the shedding of a condition imposed upon consciousness for a given period of time, a condition which is not necessary eternally. We shall advance further. Just as a student rises from one class to another class, transcending the lower for the sake of attaining the higher by shedding the conditions of the lower class and entering into the conditions of the higher class, in a similar manner, consciousness within the soul is now conditioned in the physical body and in this physical world for the purpose of fulfilling certain desires which it entertained in previous births. When these conditions of desires are broken—that is to say, when they are fulfilled completely—the conditions necessary for the existence of this body in space and time are transcended automatically, and we enter into a new realm, a higher state of education, as it were, where a wider perception and a deeper insight of things is possible. This process of transmigration, metempsychosis, coming and going, will never cease as long as the soul does not learn the lesson that it is essentially eternal, and it becomes totally desireless.

The body is perishable: antavanta ime dehā nityasyoktāḥ śarīriṇaḥ (2.18). The soul is, of course, eternal—but, nevertheless, this body is perishable. How interesting! Eternity is enshrined in perishable clay, which is this body—two contraries indeed. Prakriti and purusha are very intriguingly juxtaposed in this experience of body-consciousness. As I mentioned yesterday, the artificiality of the soul assuming this body and becoming the body is as artificial as the assuming of colour by pure crystal. We have become the body itself, and we think that we are only the body. As long as we are intensely body-conscious, the soul is only a theoretical construct. But this is not correct perception, in the same way as the redness that we see in a crystal is not correct perception.

Sri Krishna’s argument goes on, from stage to stage. Firstly, the fear of death is to be ruled out because of the possibility of attaining immortality, and the whole process of evolution through birth and death being a journey to the finality which is the end of all transmigration. As the river will meet the ocean, the soul will reach the sea of all-pervadingness. Not only that, the performance of duty, which is the main subject of the Bhagavadgita, involves the consideration of the manner in which a human individual lives in this world as a combination of spirit and matter, soul and body, consciousness and objectiveness.

There is a duty imposed upon every person on account of the very involvement of consciousness in space and time. We have to do our duty, our svadharma. Svadharmam api cāvekṣya na vikampitum arhasi (2.31): “Considering the essentiality of performing your duty, at least from this point of view, you should not shirk doing what you actually ought to do.” The duty as such is implied in our involvement in the atmosphere. The components of our psychophysical individuality actually belong to the world outside. The physical body is constituted of the five elements, the mind also is constituted of rarefied forms of tanmatras, and the sense organs are superintended by divinities like the sun, the moon, and others. In a way, we may say that we are living a borrowed existence. We have no independent existence in ourselves. The physical stuff belongs to the physical universe, the mental stuff belongs to the tanmatras, and the sense organs cannot even think and perceive without the operation of the superintending divinities which control the workings of the sense organs. Inasmuch as there is such an involvement of the person in the divinities that superintend over the sense organs, and we also are subject to the conditions of material existence, which are the five elements, we have a duty of maintaining a harmony with these elements.

Duty is nothing but the maintenance of harmony with the atmosphere. We should not be in a state of conflict with anybody. The atmosphere in which we are living may be a family atmosphere, a community atmosphere, a provincial atmosphere, a national atmosphere, an international atmosphere, or it may be the atmosphere of the whole of physical creation. Whatever it is, it is an atmosphere with which we have to be in a state of harmony—that is, neither our body, nor our mind, nor our conduct in life should be in a state of conflict with the demands of other such existences which also require a harmonious existence. We should concede the same rights to other people as we concede to our own selves. The privileges and rights that we expect in this world are also the privileges and rights expected by other people.

Inasmuch as there is no superiority or inferiority among individuals, there is a necessity for a mutual concession granted to each other by way of a sacrifice. My asking for freedom should not in any way deter the asking for freedom by another person. That is, I should not deny freedom to another just because I want to be free. Therefore, a hundred percent freedom for an individual is not possible because if each individual wants one hundred percent freedom, there will be no freedom at all because there will be a clash of aspirations. So the freedom that we can have in this world is a sort of sacrifice that we have to make at the same time—that is, we cannot expect one hundred percent freedom, though we can have as much freedom as is possible under the condition of others also having to be in a state of freedom. Hence, duty is the performance of that act which will maintain harmony in society and in the world. It also implies a sacrifice that we not only do something for the maintenance of life in a state of harmony, but we also conduct and perform a sacrifice in the form of not going beyond the limits of possible freedom.

Absolute freedom is not possible because there is nothing that is absolute in this world. Everything is relative; everything is hanging on something else; everything is limited by others. Our existence is conditioned by the existence of other people. The very fact that we are existing as individuals shows that there are other individuals. Hence, our existence itself is conditioned by the existence of others. Thus, we cannot have one hundred percent freedom. Nobody can have it. The whole world is limited to relativity. Therefore, in this condition of mutual cooperation that is required of the individual, it is incumbent on everyone to participate in the harmony that nature maintains.

The whole cosmos is nothing but a balance of forces. We may say it is a big electromagnetic field which tries to maintain itself always and will not brook any intervention from others. The moment we intervene or touch this electromagnetic field of the cosmos with an external attitude, it gives a kick; that is what is called the nemesis of karma. The karma that we speak of is nothing but the reaction of the universal electromagnetic field with which we are interfering every day as outsiders, as it were, which it does not permit. Under these circumstances, it is necessary to perform one’s duty both from the point of view of the individual and from the point of view of human society and the welfare of all beings.

In India there is a great injunction called the panchamahayajna, the five great sacrifices which every householder has to observe. Firstly is deva-yajna, the acceptance of there being superior divinities that control our destiny. Therefore, the worship of the divinities, the gods, is a pre-eminent duty of every person, and if we ignore the existence of these divinities, we will not be permitted to even exist in this world. We also have to be grateful to the great rishis and masters who have handed down the knowledge of the scriptures—the Vedas, Upanishads, etc. We have to be grateful to our teachers, our masters, who have enlightened us, and the greatest of masters are the rishis whose pronouncements come to us as scriptures.

There is also a necessity to be grateful to the people who permit us to exist as individuals in the same way as they exist as individuals. There is a mutual sacrifice among ourselves. If I have to exist, I have to see that you also exist. It is not possible to have conflict among individuals. Everybody has a desire to exist in a state of harmony. This necessity to maintain harmony among human beings demands a consideration and a humane attitude among people. We cannot suddenly get into a fit of anger. We cannot condemn people, we cannot criticise, we cannot subordinate a person and consider him as a tool or exploit him. Nothing of the kind is possible. No person is a tool in our hands, and we cannot exploit anybody. Nobody is a servant in this world; everybody is a master and, therefore, we have to treat everybody with respect. Manushya-yajna is the respect to athithis, guests, and people generally. We also have to be considerate to living beings who are not able to speak, such as animals: bhuta-yajna.

That is to say, this pancha-mahayajna, or the five great sacrifices enjoined upon every person, implies that we are in a world of divinity with life pervading everywhere and love ruling the cosmos. Hatred is not the rule; love is the rule. There is a power of attraction which is seen in every little atom and in every molecule, in every component of molecules, in every organism, and even in the whole solar system. The attraction that one exercises on others is physically known as gravitation. Biologically it is known as health, psychologically it is called sanity, rationally it is called logic, and spiritually it is called Universality.

All these graduated appreciations of the Universal Being in particulars should be considered as the foundation of ethics and morality. A person is good to the extent that he is able to recognise the Universal in the particular. A person is divine only to the extent he is able to recognise Universal principles in particular individuals. This is the essence of svadharma, which Sri Krishna refers to. Apart from the immortality of the soul—which is the basic consideration and, therefore, we should not fear death—the other aspect of the matter is that we have to live in this world, performing our duties. As long as we are in this world, in this physical body, it becomes incumbent on us to perform the social duties, the personal duties, and the other duties mentioned. If we do even a little good in this world, it will be credited to our bank balance. One day or the other, we will find that interest has been accrued to it.

Nehābhikramanāśo’sti pratyavāyo na vidyate (2.40). No reaction will be produced by our actions if our actions are motivated by the consideration of a Universal principle existing between ourselves and the object which we are dealing with. And as long as this consciousness of a Universal presence between ourselves and others conditions and rules our behaviour, action will not produce a reaction—that is, karma will not bind us: na karma lipyate nare (Isa 2).

In the Isavasya Upanishad is the pronouncement īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam (Isa 1): All this is pervaded by the One Reality. Therefore, we should not be greedy. We should not try to possess things, because the idea of possession of property is also the idea of converting some part of the world into a tool for our purposes. As I mentioned, we cannot exploit anything. If we perform action with this knowledge of God being present everywhere—that is, the principle of Universality ruling all things—we will be purified by our actions; karma becomes a purifying medium, and not a binding medium.

Furthermore, action is a must: karmaṇyevādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana, mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo’stvakarmaṇi (2.47); na hi kaścit kṣaṇam api jātu tiṣṭhatyakarmakṛt (3.5). This refers to the action that we generally speak of, which includes duty, the performance of obligatory works. This injunction on action is born of the very structure of prakriti, which never ceases from moving further; and, all prakriti is potential activity. Even if we keep quiet and do not do any work, that consciousness of our not doing any work is also a work. Hence, nobody can be without any kind of action. Total inactivity is not possible because every cell of the body is active. The mind is active, the growth which the body undergoes is an activity, and even death is an activity. There is continuous movement in the cosmos. It is like a train moving eternally on the rails, and inasmuch as there is no inactivity anywhere on account of the involvement of all things in the processes of prakriti, we should make the best of things. Finally, in the state of the ultimate purusha, there is no activity, because there is no contact with prakriti and there is no flux or natural reaction. But until that time, as long as the purusha, or the consciousness of the Atman, is involved in this body, there is a reciprocal action of the Atman and the body.

The Atman illumines the mind and enlivens the body, and the body limits the experience of consciousness by subjecting it to the laws of nature. The laws of nature rule this world. This body is conditioned by every law that is applicable to natural phenomena; therefore, our jivatva, our consciousness, our very existence itself seems to be conditioned by geographical conditions, historical conditions, and forces such as gravitation, etc. There is no gravitation for the soul; it is only for the physical body. The more are we externalised in our perception, the more devoted we are to the objects of sense, the more we think that we are the body, the more we are subject to the laws of nature, and the more is the way karma will bind us and compel us to work for the sake of participation in the work of prakriti. When we cannot consciously and deliberately participate in the work of prakriti, we will be forced to this by the very nature of prakriti, which is working inside us, which is working through us—and, as a matter of fact, we ourselves are embodiments of the three gunas of prakriti.

Our duty is to act in such a manner that action does not bind us. The consideration of the fruit of an action is contrary to the concept of duty. A person who expects something from the performance of duty has not performed duty. Duty is not a wage earner. A person does not perform duty because something comes out of it. It is a necessary obligation on our part to participate in the very structure of the cosmos. If our legs walk, they are performing their duty, but they do not get salary because they are walking. The limbs of the body work independently, and no limb asks for recompense or consideration from the other parts of the body. If the eyes show us the way to go and the legs walk, the eyes may tell us to give them something because they helped us by showing the direction. This does not happen because mutual cooperation is the essence of duty; and in mutual cooperation, no expectation of fruits is possible because the very fact of mutual cooperation brings all the fruits that are required.

Duty is also, automatically, a privilege. The gods in heaven know that we deserve whatever is necessary for our existence under the conditions of the duty that we have to perform. So there is no point in our working in this world, or doing anything, for that matter, under the impression that something will come. The futurity of the expectation of fruits of action is, again, a concept in time. We feel that if we do something, then some future fruit will follow. The idea of the future is, again, an involvement of our consciousness in time. We have already been told that we should not perform any action with a notion of our involvement in space and time. Our consideration should be a Universal principle present in all things, and not our involvement in space and time. So we should not think that if we do something good today, tomorrow we will get some fruit. The idea of tomorrow should not arise in us because the idea of tomorrow implies space and time and, again, it is a bondage. The meaning of duty is very difficult to conceive, and even great sages are bewildered in understanding what it actually is. Kavayo’pyatra mohitāḥ (4.16): “Even learned people, even masters with insight, are bewildered as to what action is, what karma is, and how it works. Anyway, I shall tell you how it works.” Sri Krishna goes on further.